Today started off with an alarm going off outside for a nitrogen dioxide leak from the local smelter. My husband and I listened to updates on the radio and read notes on social media as tried to decide how he should get to work. It didn’t seem safe for him to walk, and I didn’t really want to load the kids into our one vehicle to drive him, but then I didn’t want him to take the car either in case we really did feel it necessary to leave our house and go out someplace further away from the leak. Before we could really worry too much we had news that the leak was downgraded and supposedly contained. So he walked to work.
Watching social media was interesting. There were people on the other end of the city worried about opening their windows, even after it was announced that the problem was minimal. There were also stories of people sitting out on their front porch to watch the yellow cloud. I thought about the three types of people: those who assume the worst, those who assume the best, and those who follow the instructions completely (shutting their windows when told, but also trusting to go out when told it is safe).
Later in the day the province’s air monitoring website was circulating with people pointing out that the no2 levels had peaked at 2 a.m., even though the alarm wasn’t sounded until 6. The question then was whether the alarm was late either through purpose or accident, or whether the peak was unrelated to the leak. The air monitoring site is downtown. The smelter is on the edge of town. According to the news the cloud of gas never made it into town. Could there be a cloud of gas concentrated enough to be a visible yellow cloud and yet the levels in town a few miles off not be a problem?
I looked back through the records of the no2 levels, and found that levels were equally high a week or two before, and almost every month had some point peaking at the same level. In the winter there were levels much higher than reported this morning, and they were high across the province (thus suggesting that it was not simply an unreported leak in January). It looks to me like the higher levels that peaked at 2 might really be coincidental.
It is apparent from social media that there are many who doubt that Vale (the company that owns the smelter) is telling the truth. There are people who believe that the nighttime rise in no2 was part of some failing at the plant that the plant was trying to cover up or delay.
Vale does have a lousy safety record. I don’t blame people for being suspicious. On the other hand, their failures at other times does not mean that they were hiding something this time. It could be that in this incident Vale did exactly what it was supposed to. Vale took precautionary measures and asked people to close their windows and stay inside.
There are those who will trust the companies and the government no matter what, there are those who will doubt them no matter what. Then there are those of us who wish we had time to study meteorology in depth so that we could understand why the levels of pollutants go up and down.
I wish the Ontario ministry of environment would have more than one air monitoring station in Sudbury listed on their website, so that we could see how the gas is distributed across the city, and know which areas to be concerned about.